Gretchen McKay

A519 Chocolate turns into a sweet career

Some of the hand-crafted chocolates created by Amanda Wright of A519 Chocolate. Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette

With dual degrees in neuroscience and psychology, Amanda Wright possesses both a knack for problem-solving and the patience of a saint. Two skills that served her well as a research assistant studying adolescent brain development at the University of Pittsburgh.

Yet, ever since she was little, the soul of an artist burned inside.

When she decided in 2012, to put her science career on a back burner to study baking and pastry arts at one of the country’s premier culinary schools, no one was surprised. Least of all herself.

While the 28-year-old loved her job at Pitt, and the fact that it complemented her husband’s doctoral studies in biomedical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, “I had that slight dread of not doing exactly what I wanted to do to be happy,” she says.

So back to West Coast the couple went, where during her first semester at Napa Valley’s Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, the San Diego native figured out what she wanted to do with the rest of her life: to create one-of-a-kind confectionery from chocolate. Serving as an assistant to CIA instructor and Team USA member Stephen Durfee at the 2013 La Coupe de Monde de la Patisserie competition in Lyon, France, only cemented that goal — and not just because the aromas that come with the job of chocolatier are so intoxicating.

“It’s one medium, but you can be creative and express yourself in so many ways,” she says of the intricate process of turning high-quality chocolate into delectable treats like truffles and hand-dipped candies.

Flash forward to April 2015. With stints as a pastry cook and sous chef and creative director at an artisan chocolate shop in tony Yountville in the Napa Valley under her toque, Ms. Wright and her husband, Andy Rape, boomeranged back to Pittsburgh to open A519 Chocolate in Greenfield.

Amanda Wright of A519 Chocolate. Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette

Talk about a well-laid plan: The business launched just four days after the couple arrived in Lawrenceville. And her hand-painted chocolates were such that they quickly found fans not just at local farmers markets and boutique shops but also with clients such as Stage AE, Carnegie Mellon, Hotel Monaco and Coterie, a co-working space for women in the Frick Building.

Ms. Wright concedes the move was risky. But at the same time, the couple felt certain there was a growing market for hand-crafted artisan chocolates, even at the princely sum of $30 for a 16-piece box. At least there would be once people saw what bold, gorgeous works of art her truffles were and came to understand the precision, care and artistry that goes into making them.

What’s it take to create her edible treasures? Ms. Wright this month started offering private truffle-making courses at A519’s expanded year-old kitchen in Millvale. The interactive class — which starts with a tasting — costs $85 and takes about 2½ hours, during which attendees try their hand at everything from tempering chocolate on a marble slab (it’s harder than it looks) and creating chocolate shells to painting an acrylic mold with colored cocoa butter. Guests also learn how chocolate is made, from the growth of the cacao bean to its harvest, processing and preparation. The price includes a six-piece box of truffles.

Ms. Wright describes her work as “magical,” but it’s really a fragrant labor of love. She starts early each morning at 6 and often toils late into the night in her 68-degree, 400-square-foot industrial kitchen. Quality is key; each piece starts with milk or dark chocolate from Valrhona, a premier French chocolate maker, and most of the fillings, infusions and flavorings are sourced locally —  cream from Penn Hills’ Turner Dairy Farms, coffee from Allegheny Coffee and Tea Exchange, nuts and other dry goods from Pennsylvania Macaroni.

While the holidays are the busiest, every season is chocolate season. Ms. Wright hand-crafts thousands of truffles each week. It’s as taxing as it sounds, but make no mistake, she never gets tired of it.

Amanda Wright of A519 Chocolate fills molds with chocolate. Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette

“Every day I get to go back to my childhood,” she says, recalling how when her teenaged self was grumpy, her father got her to chill out by slipping her a Dove chocolate heart.

She also loves the fact she still gets to use the left side of her brain. Truffle-making involves so many rules and incredible precision, and there’s also a science to creating a killer ganache or soft caramel. Also she gets to put the cooking techniques she learned in culinary school to good use, such as when she makes pralines or nougat from scratch for fillings.

Her colorful, abstract designs, she says, are usually the result of a conversation with her husband, who is in charge of marketing and packaging. But sometimes she just has fun and lets go with the splatters and swirls. She also can customize the chocolates with a client’s desired colors or logo, using an innovative three-dimensional printing process.

The most popular truffle is her signature black-and-gold salted caramel, crafted with gray salt, but there’s always 10 rotating flavors to choose from. Depending on the season, the chocolates might be filled with fresh strawberries, pumpkin or apple cinnamon caramel, or a gourmet take on s’mores; two new spring flavors are mandarin honeysuckle (dark chocolate infused with fresh mandarin and honeysuckle tea) and bananas foster (blond Dulcey chocolate with bananas and Maggie’s Farm Rum). For Valentine’s Day, the shop will feature a special line of single-origin dark chocolates, including Illanka (Peru), Manjari  (Madagascar), Nyangbo  (Ghana) and Alpaco (Ecuador).

While the idea of opening a stand-alone store is perpetually on the table, the couple has no concrete plans to make that move just yet; they’re  too busy keeping pace with current demand. For the immediate future, it’s just about creating a product she’s proud of, and having fun.

“I’m following my heart and allowing myself to express my creativity,” she says.

To sign up for one of A519’s truffle-making classes. go to shop.a519chocolate.com or  call 412-475-9519.

Pittsburgh sets record for world’s largest pierogi

Guinness World Records adjudicator Michael Empric samples the giant pierogi he declared a world record, weighing in at 123 pounds. Photo by Bob Donaldson/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Chefs at Rivers Casino on Wednesday put Pittsburgh in the record book by preparing and serving what Guinness World Records has verified to be the world’s largest pierogi.

More than a year in the making, the giant dumpling weighed 123 pounds, far exceeding the 110 pounds, 3 ounces needed to establish the record. It was so big that the North Side casino’s facility team had to craft a 27-by-36-inch stainless-steel vessel in which to cook it.

“This is the largest thing I’ve ever made, period,” said executive chef Richard Marmion after Guinness adjudicator Michael Empric made it official at Wednesday’s 10 a.m. news conference in the casino’s second-floor lobby. “And I’ve made a lot of stuff.”

Added assistant executive chef Adam Tharpe: “Only in Pittsburgh would there be so much excitement over pierogies.”

The project was presented to them a little more than a year ago by Shenandoah, Pa.-based Mrs. T’s Pierogies, which six years ago founded National Pierogi Day through Chase’s Calendar of Events.

The chefs started rolling out the 42-pound ball of dough at about 5 a.m. Wednesday. Shaping it by hand to fit the specialty vessel, they then filled the giant disk with 82 pounds of cheddar cheese-flavored mashed potatoes. Then they flopped the dough over on itself to create a half-moon dumpling. After rolling and crimping the edges by hand, the pierogi was lowered into a kettle of hot water.

Pierogies typically are boiled until they float, “but we kept it to a simmer because we weren’t sure if it would blow apart at a hard boil,” said Mr. Marmion. Then it was into the oven for 90 minutes. By 8:35 a.m., it was ready to be weighed.

Perfecting a pierogi dough that was both strong and pliable but still nice to roll out took some doing, said Mr. Tharpe. The winning recipe includes more than 25 pounds of flour, 1 gallon of water, 16 eggs, 3 cups of oil and 2 1/2 pounds of sour cream.

Much as they would have loved to fry the boiled pierogi as per tradition, doing so would have proven too dangerous, said Mr. Marmion.

This is where things got complicated. Minutes after images of the giant, golden-brown dumpling hit social media, PGH Pierogi Truck took to Twitter with a formal protest. “We have fundamental problems with this ‘pierogi,’ ” read the tweet. “Because it isn’t one. It’s pagach,” a traditional Lenten dish that truck owner Lynn Szarnicki describes as a “pierogi calzone.”

n National Pierogi Day, chefs at the Rivers Casino carry their giant pierogi from the oven for weighing. It weighed in at 123 pounds, a Guinness record. Photo by Bob Donaldson/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Except . . . it isn’t. Pagach (pronounced puh-GHACH) — dough-wrapped bundles of mashed potatoes, sauerkraut or shredded sweet cabbage — always are made with a yeast dough, notes Helen Mannarino of Pierogies Plus in McKees Rocks. Pierogi dough has flour, eggs, water and salt.

“Personally, I wouldn’t do it” — bake them — said Ms. Mannarino, who emigrated from Poland in 1974 and has been making (and boiling) pierogies for 50 years. “But there are many different ways to prepare pierogies. Each country has its own recipe.”

Pittsburgh Pierogies: “We love you, dumpling!”

Carl Funtal of Cop Out Pierogies in Etna, Post-Gazette photo

Carl Funtal has spent most of his adult life as a tough guy, protecting the public as a sergeant with the Shaler Township Police Department. Truth be told, he’s really kind of a softie.

Despite his commanding appearance — at 6 feet, 3 inches (6-4 in his motorcycle boots) and 275 pounds, he dwarves most folks — the Pittsburgh native isn’t afraid to admit he likes to . . . cook.

He’s particularly good at making the comfort food of his youth that speaks to his Polish-Russian-Czech-Austrian heritage, and the one that he’ll dish up this weekend at South Shore Riverfront Park during the city’s newest food fest: Pierogies.

As a kid growing up in Brookline, Mr. Funtal watched as his mother, Laura, rolled out and then cut big hunks of soft dough into circles to be stuffed with mashed potatoes and cheese. He doesn’t recall helping out too often, but somehow, maybe through osmosis, he learned.

By the time he married and started raising children, he’d garnered such a reputation for his exquisite potato dumplings among family and friends (the dumplings often were included on the party spreads he catered during off-duty hours) that one day, someone told him he should be making them professionally.

“And I said, ‘You’re crazy! No!’ ”

Then again, maybe making a few batches here and there and selling them as a fundraiser might be a fun way to help cover the cost of his daughters’ dance lessons.

“When your kids are in activities, you’re always selling something,” he says, “so I thought, ‘Why not?’ ”

Last year, that paternal labor of love evolved into Cop Out Pierogies, a small storefront on Butler Street in Etna (copoutpierogies.com; 412-973-0068). For $6.75, you can buy a cop’s dozen (14) traditional potato-and-cheese pierogies, or you can spend a little more for one of the specialty flavors, which run the gamut from Buffalo Chicken to Spring Roll to Cheeseburger to sweet Lekvar, a thick Eastern European jam made from prunes.

Or maybe you’d like to try the more seasonal Pilgrim Pierogie, a plump conglomeration of turkey, potato, corn and fresh cranberries. He’ll have an ample supply of those Thanksgiving-style dumplings, too, at Saturday’s first-ever Pittsburgh Pierogi Festival.

“It’s like a ship in a bottle,” he says. “You don’t know how it all gets in there.”

Better late than never

The brainchild of Riverlife Pittsburgh and the Urban Redevelopment Authority, the free fest will feature nearly a dozen pierogie vendors and/or restaurants along with live entertainment and children’s activities. There also will be a pop-up pierogie market selling everything from pierogie T-shirts and onesies to jewelry, crocheted ornaments and all sorts of other swag; and attendees can snap photos with the likes of Sauerkraut Saul and Cheese Chester. It was the latter who logged the most wins this year at PNC Park (22) running the Pirates’ signature 280-yard Pierogi Race at home games. The fest runs from noon to 5 p.m., rain or shine.

Chocolate “Pie-Rogie” from Cop Out Pierogies in Etna. Post-Gazette photo.

All proceeds will benefit the recently completed South Shore Riverfront Park (riverlifepgh.org), the $13-million, 3.4-acre park in front of Hofbrauhaus Pittsburgh that will play host to the event and that extends the SouthSide Works retail complex down to the Monongahela River. Activities will take place near the terraced, 1,000-seat outdoor amphitheater.

“It’s a wonderful space that’s just begging for an event like this,” says Riverlife’s director of communications Stephan Bontrager, who over the summer, with folks at the URA and Revive Marketing Group, came up with the idea as a way to promote the park. “It’ll be a nice fall day, with crisp air, and the comfort food of pierogies in all different forms.” (And different spellings.)

He’s not kidding. In addition to Mr. Funtal, scheduled vendors include the Polish Pierogi Truck, which will be serving at least three varieties; S&D Polish Deli in the Strip District; Kevin Sousa of Salt of the Earth, who will trot out a family recipe; and Marty’s Market, which will offer a sweet-potato pierogie.

If you’re from Pittsburgh, where pierogies are among the city’s most celebrated foods, no doubt you’re saying: It’s about time! After all, we’ve got festivals for just about every other ethnic edible imaginable on any given weekend throughout the area. You’d be right.

“Coming here 12 years ago from Denver, I’m fascinated with the pierogie culture in Pittsburgh,” says Mr. Bontrager. “It’s such a cool regional food thing. I know a lot of Rust Belt cities that can call claim to it, but this city has a solid stake in that horse race. . . . It’s one of those Pittsburgh pride things.”

All signs point to the inaugural event being a runaway hit. Close to 500 people already have RSVP’d on the festival’s Facebook page, which leads organizers to expect upwards of 1,000 or more.

“The response has been incredible,” Mr. Bontrager said. “And the wonderful thing is, the park can accommodate everyone comfortably, whether you’re arriving by bike, boat or car.”

A Pittsburgh thing

Traditionalists might consider Mr. Funtal’s new-fangled flavors sacrilege, and it’s hard to blame them. Generations of Pittsburghers have grown up on pierogies lovingly hand rolled, filled and folded by church ladies at parishes such as Saint Mary Ukrainian Orthodox Church in McKees Rocks, Saints Peter & Paul Ukrainian Catholic Church in Ambridge and St. George’s Ukrainian Catholic Church in Brighton Heights.

Many more pray at the altar of Pierogies Plus, the down-to-earth McKees Rocks shop in a not-so-converted gas station that’s been cranking out the tasty dough pockets in the Polish tradition for more than 20 years. A media darling, the Island Avenue store has been featured on The Food Network and in national magazines such as Saveur, which in 2011 included it on its annual list of 100 great food finds.

Gosia’s Pierogies in Latrobe, which uses a “secret” recipe handed down from the owner’s grandmother in Poland, also has a devout following, as does Szmidt’s Old World Deli in Greenfield (and soon to be in Garfield) and S & D Polish Deli in the Strip District, where 15 varieties are made with Polish flour.

But the times, they are a-changin’.

The new wave

If a survey of the Pittsburgh restaurant scene is any indication, you no longer have to be of Slavic origin to make a good dumpling. Nor do you have to stick to the traditional fillings of potato-and-cheddar or cottage cheese. Pierogies have become a popular ingredient among a growing number of Pittsburgh chefs, who have been using them to spice up everything from hamburgers to steaks to the dessert menu.

Church Brew Works, for instance, recently had both rattlesnake and alligator pierogies on its menu, and Eleven tops its prime beef ribeye with a dumpling stuffed with pastrami. Braddock’s offers pierogies ranging from Braised Short Rib to Buffalo Chicken to Chocolate and Peanut Butter. At Franktuary, you can get your dog “Pittsburgh” style, or topped with a smooshed pierogie and slaw, and a fried pierogie also is a topping option at Burghers in Harmony. Knossos Gyros in Dormont has (what else!) pierogies filled with lamb carved off the cone and tzatziki sauce. And at Rowdy’s BBQ and Fatheads, they’re deep-fried to a golden brown as an appetizer.

The list goes on and on.

Pierogies also have joined Pittsburgh’s expanding food-truck scene via Polish Pierogi’s Pittsburgh Pierogi Truck. Before they ceased operation late this summer, the duo behind Peddlin’ Pierogies sold gourmet pierogies made with organic spelt flour from the back of a bicycle, as well as at Inn Termission Lounge on the South Side. Their non-traditional flavors included Buffalo Blue Cheese and Curry-Sweet Potato.

Speaking of preparations and flavors your Polish babcia might never had considered, Downtown’s Sinful Sweets occasionally includes a chocolate-dipped pierogie on its menu. And Mr. Funtal, who will open a small sit-down space in front of his commercial pierogie kitchen in about a month, offers more than 10 different Pie-Rogies, or dessert pierogies. This time of year, Pumpkin Spice and Apple Maple Walnut Cheese Cake are among the more popular varieties, but he also sells a heck of a lot of Banana Split and Freaking Fudge pierogies. And kids, says his wife, Beth, who works part time in store with their 16-year-old daughter, Sydney, love their PB&J dumplings.

“They can’t get enough of them,” she says.

Despite being something of a newbie, Cop Out Pierogies already has proven it’s got some chops: Not only does it supply more than a half-dozen restaurants including Atria’s with pierogies, but it also grabbed the No. 2 spot this June on Pittsburgh Magazine’s 2013 Best Restaurant Reader’s Poll, when it had been in business for only nine months. Mr. Funtal now makes between 300 and 500 dozen a week with help from his family when he’s not busy keeping Shaler safe. (He mixes, rolls and cuts the 30-pound chunks of dough into circles while his wife and daughter fill the dumplings.) He plans on doing an open house on Nov. 23.

He credits much of his success to his dough, which includes sour cream and is cut by hand using a metal milkshake cup. The result is a pierogie that’s not quite like a snowflake, but obviously not one of those mass produced, 12-to-a-pound pierogies, either.

“People like that,” he says. “A consistent taste but slightly different texture” with each bite.

But Pittsburgh’s love and never-ending appetite for the dumplings plays a big part, too.

“They give comfort,” he says.

Pierogie-making has become his passion. He loves the challenge of coming up with the next winning flavor combination (to date, his only failure has been one filled with spaghetti) and also gets so much pleasure out of interacting with satisfied customers.

“Nothing makes me happier than when an 80-year-old comes in here, and she comes back and tells me they taste just like Mom’s,” he says.

“I can’t wait,” he adds, “until the Pierogi Festival,” especially the naming of the people’s choice pierogies. “I’m very competitive, so it’s going to be fun.”

This is Pittsburgh food: Tailgating – Sunday dinner, Pittsburgh style

Tailgating before Steelers’ home games at Heinz Field is a Pittsburgh tradition. Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette

 

Lynn Cauley grew up in a household that bled black and gold during football season, so as an adult, there never was a question she wouldn’t carry on the Steelers tradition.

“I came to all the games when I was a kid,” recalls Mrs. Cauley, of Park Place, whose sportswriter father, Carl Hughes, covered the Steelers for The Pittsburgh Press before becoming assistant manager of Kennywood Park in 1956.

But even good friends are a little surprised at just how far she and husband, Jim, go in the days and hours leading up to a home game at Heinz Field.

A rousing tailgate isn’t just a tradition for the East End couple. It’s practically a religion, and not just because most of their parking lot-parties unfold early on Sunday morning, when the faithful of another kind are settling into pews at church.

Long before the gates to Gold A swing open at 8 a.m., the Cauleys are preparing for the pre-game celebration, which for the last few years has drawn more than 100 friends, family and business associates. Up at 4:45 a.m. to put food in the oven, the couple is on the road with a packed car by 7:15. To dawdle, says Mrs. Cauley, would be a rookie mistake.

“I know, we’re nuts,” she says, laughing. “But it’s first-come, first-served.”

In this town, they’ve got plenty of equally crazy company. Pittsburgh prides itself on being the Tailgate Capital of the World. Rain or shine, blistering heat or blustering snow, each of the stadium’s 22 neighboring lots is packed during home games with thousands of fans. They bring with them an amazing display of pre-game munchies.

Even before many of us have had our morning coffee, the intoxicating aroma of kielbasa, pierogies, wings and burgers on the hibachi fills the air. More than a few fans lay out elaborate tablecloth buffets, complete with fancy cocktails and gourmet eats. On one recent Sunday, Rocco Ferrante, a Mount Washington native who now lives in Princeton, N.J., could be found deep-frying, right on the pavement, not just a turkey, but also a duck.

And don’t forget dessert. Brownies, cakes, pies, bowls of candy and assorted cookies.

“Pittsburgh’s the best because it’s such an ethnic town,” says Mrs. Cauley. “All those family traditions are tied to the tailgate.”

She admits throwing such a big party takes lots of preparation. Wednesday finds her shopping for paper products. On Thursday, the marathon cooking sessions begin, starting with sauce that will serve as the base for her husband’s “signature” hot sausage sandwiches. They’ll make enough to fill six trays.

“The secret is to grill it,” says Mr. Cauley, who when he isn’t cooking is a sales executive at Ceiling Systems Distributors, a construction supply company.

His wife’s specialty, meanwhile, is another Pittsburgh classic: sweet banana peppers stuffed with a spicy mixture of sausage, cheese and bread crumbs, and then baked in red sauce.

“They’re homegrown,” she says of the long yellow peppers, proudly holding up a box of the veggies she brought to a recent tailgate for all to see.

Before last Sunday’s game against Washington, the menu — determined each week by the weather, and emailed to invited guests along with parking directions — also included fried chicken, honey-baked ham, meatball hoagies, two kinds of potatoes and several desserts. Helping to wash it down were pineapple vodka martinis.

There also was plenty of variety at Louis Lipps’ tailgate along Art Rooney Avenue. Once a year, aided by friends, the former Steelers wide receiver cooks up a storm to raise money for the Flight 93 Memorial Fund. It’s a Southern delight, offering invited guests everything from fried catfish to seafood etouffe to Cajun beef stew to gumbo and jambalaya . . . or as he puts it, “something you can’t get up here.

“I know Pittsburgh made me famous,” he adds, “but I’m New Orleans born and bred.”

Rob Castille’s tailgate for about 20 friends was a bit more traditional, serving up real-deal pierogies sauteed in butter and onions, big bowls of Buffalo chicken dip and hot wings. Though the Greensburg native did have one thing on the menu you might not find elsewhere: drunken gummy bears.

“They’re soaked in vodka, and they’re delicious!” his friend Renee Heininger of Fox Chapel declared. “What else could you ask for?”


 

Stuffed banana peppers

This recipe can be prepared ahead of time, and kept in the freezer.

  • 20 banana peppers
  • 2 pounds sweet Italian sausage
  • 1 1/2 cups shredded mozzarella
  • 1 1/2 cups Romano cheese
  • 2 cups bread crumbs
  • 4 eggs
  • 1/2 cup chopped parsley
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/3 cup milk
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 to 2 24-ounce jars Classico Italian Sausage and Pepper sauce
  • 8-ounce package Kraft shredded Italian Five Cheese

Cut off top of the banana pepper. Slice one side of pepper lengthways. Clean out seeds, rinse pepper, turn upside down on paper towel to dry. Repeat with remaining peppers.

In a large bowl, mix ingredients through salt and pepper.

Pour Classico Sauce to cover bottom of 10-by-12 inch chafing dish pan.

Gently part sliced pepper and generously fill with combined ingredients. Place pepper in chafing dish. Repeat with remaining peppers. There will be 2 layers when complete.

Cover top of peppers with sauce and sprinkle with 8 ounces of Italian Five Cheese.

Bake for 1 hour in a preheated 350-degree oven.

Serves 6 to 8.

— Lynn Cauley, Park Place


 

Signature Hot Sausage

48 hot sausages (Costco and/or Sam’s)

  • 2 24-ounce jars Classico Italian Sausage and Peppers sauce
  • 2 24-ounce jars Classico Spicy Tomato and Basil sauce
  • 3 large green peppers
  • 3 large onions (yellow or Spanish)
  • 4 large-sized banana peppers
  • 1 stick (8 tablespoons) butter
  • Seasoned salt
  • 2 8-ounce packages fresh sliced white mushrooms
  • 36 Breadworks sausage rolls (some prefer no bun)

Grill sausage for 10 minutes on each side under medium flame/temperature. Remove from grill pad, then dry with paper towel to remove excess grease. Place in 2 chafing dish-size aluminum pans.

Add 1 jar of each Classico sauce into the pans with the hot sausage.

Cut green peppers into 21/2-inch long strips (3/4 inch wide). Cut banana peppers into 1-inch circles down the length of the pepper. Cut the onions in half and then into 1-inch sections.

Combine the peppers and onions in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the 1 stick of butter and cook for 12 minutes. Season to taste with seasoned salt. Drain excess butter from skillet and evenly divide and spread the onions and peppers onto the 2 pans of hot sausage.

Cover and bake the hot sausage pans in a 325-degree oven for 1 hour. Remove the cover and put one package of mushrooms in each pan. Cover again and place the hot sausage pans back into the oven for an additional 25 minutes at 275 degrees. When sausage is done baking, slice rolls, and enjoy a signature hot sausage sandwich — it’s the best sausage sandwich in Pittsburgh.

Serves a crowd.

— Jim Cauley, Park Place

 

This is Pittsburgh food: On the cookie tables

This is the sixth “This Is Pittsburgh Food,” a series of stories and videos on local traditions by Gretchen McKay and videographer and photographer Steve Mellon.

The Cookie Table is a Pittsburgh wedding tradition. Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette

When Cristina Lazzaro started planning her wedding to Brian Perris, her checklist included all the bridal basics: A stunning gown. A swanky dinner reception for 250 guests. A relaxing beach honeymoon. A tiered wedding cake from which the newlyweds would give each other bites in front of the oohing and aahing crowd.

And, of course, cookies. Lots and lots of cookies.

So many were piled high on the couple’s wedding cookie table — make that tables — that the sugary spread took up an entire room at Bella Sera, the Tuscan-inspired hall in Canonsburg where they held the reception last month. More than 6,000 cookies in all, if you were counting (and many were) and every one was homemade, thanks to a Herculean effort that took 21 family members several weeks, and untold amounts of sugar, butter and flour, to pull off.

Not that anyone was complaining.

“We made 100 trays for our last wedding, too,” notes Cristina’s mother, Maria Lazzaro, referring to her oldest daughter Rosanna’s wedding in 2010.

“For us, it doesn’t feel like a wedding unless we have a cookie table,” agrees the bride, a teacher with the Pittsburgh School District. “It’s a big family tradition. Everyone is bringing cookies.”

No one is really sure where, or how, the Pittsburgh cookie table tradition started. But the general consensus is that it’s a custom the region’s many Italian and Eastern European immigrants brought with them from their homelands. An elaborate wedding cake is expensive; homemade cookies not so much, especially when baking them is shared among the extended family. Mrs. Lazzaro, who at age 5 moved to the U.S. with her parents from the small town of Ateleta in Italy’s Abruzzo region, remembers how the aunts and cousins would bake up a storm before family celebrations and holidays such as Christmas. So as an adult, she continued the tradition with her own family.

“We try to keep up the old way, even though we’re here and not in the Old Country,” she says.

Today, the practice is so ingrained in Pittsburgh’s wedding culture that it crosses all ethnic and religious lines, with tins of homemade cookies sharing the spotlight with the wedding cake at even the ritziest weddings. Which isn’t to say cookie tables are unique to the area, or even Pennsylvania, for that matter. Parts of New York, West Virginia, Virginia, New Jersey and Ohio (especially Youngstown) all share some version of the wedding custom, according to local historians.

Pittsburghers, though, still claim it.

Cristina Lazzaro and Brian Perris’ Pittsburgh wedding reception included a cookie table with more than 6,000 cookies. Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette

Treasured family recipes are a must on a traditional cookie table, so bright and early the Saturday morning before the wedding, Mrs. Lazzaro, her three daughters and a half-dozen relatives gather in her Ross kitchen to bake some favorites handed down over the generations. There’ll be cookies from both northern and southern Italy, because as the bride’s aunt Maria Tolomeo of Shaler explains, “Each region has a different tradition of cookies.”

So different, that the sisters-in-law can’t even tell you what each other’s specialties are called in Italian.

Mrs. Lazzaro’s mother, Giovanna Ricci, 85, who lives in Bloomfield and speaks with a lilting Italian accent, is tasked with making hundreds of snowflake-shape pizzelles at the dining room table. Nearby, the bride’s 9-year-old cousin Ilaria Lazzaro fiddles with a tray of sugary Pesche Dolci, cookies that look exactly like miniature peaches; outside on the patio, another cousin is frying a savory biscuit-like treat known as Gravioli in a large vat of oil set on a portable burner. Allowed to cool and dry until crunchy in a box lined with paper towels, they’ll be served as a bar nibble with wine before dinner.

Mrs. Tolomeo has the toughest cookie job, or at least the most intricate: crafting dozens of Nacatole, a traditional deep-fried Calabrian treat. After rolling a sweet yeast dough into long, thin ropes and cutting it into 18-inch lengths, she wraps each piece around a thin dowel and then up and down the sides, after which she carefully pinches the seams together. After the sweet is removed from the peg, she places it on a comb-like tool called a pettine to create the cookie’s characteristic “rifling.” Fried in oil, they’re crunchy, with just the slightest hint of her husband’s homemade red wine folded into each bite.

“It’s a labor of love,” says Mrs. Tolomeo, who will spend several hours kneading, rolling and wrapping the dough into crown-shaped biscuits. “Everyone makes them to show their love for the couple.”

The morning before the wedding, aunts and cousins meet at the Lazzaro’s house with their myriad offerings. There are so many boxes and wicker baskets of cookies, it takes five cars to transport them the half hour to the reception hall, where they’ll be stored until after the wedding.

Baking? That was easy, says Mrs. Lazzaro with a tired smile.

“This is the hard part. I just want to get them out of the house so we can relax and enjoy the party.”

Not to mention once again be able to prepare a proper meal for the family: With so many cookies taking up room in the fridge there’s been no “real” food for days.

At the reception after dinner, it takes three servers just about 15 minutes to unwrap and lay out the cookies after rolling them into the “cookie room” off the main hall on carts. To assure a big reveal, they keep the doors closed, and shoosh away the nosy people who try to sneak a peak. When the room finally opens up at around 8:30 p.m., there is a bit of a mad rush as the first guests file in.

Peanut Blossoms are always the first cookie to disappear from a Pittsburgh cookie table. Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette

Peanut Blossoms are always among the first cookies to disappear. So the Lazzaros have two varieties — a traditional cookie rolled in sugar and another dipped in coconut. There are also nut horns, Italian cupcakes, tarts and tassies, lady locks, Nonni’s pizzelles and countless butter, chocolate and sugar cookies.

Some of the cookies are eaten right away as dessert. But many dozens more are immediately packed into plastic boxes to be taken home for breakfast the next morning. This is one time you don’t have to be shy about being a bit of a cookie hog: When one guest tries to walk away with a half-full container, bridesmaid Angela Bucci sends her back to the table.

“There’s too much room on top,” she gently scolds her. “They have to be completely smashed in.”

As for how to assure you get your favorites in the race to the table?

“You run as fast as you can,” says the bride’s sister, Marina Lazzaro, 19. She was only half kidding.

Spectacular as the event is, this isn’t the biggest cookie table ever laid out at Bella Sera. For their daughter Beth’s reception on Jan. 2, 2010, Peg and Jack Lydic of Bethel Park tempted friends and family with some 21,000 cookies in more than two dozen varieties — or roughly nine dozen per guest, who stuffed them into 400 takeaway containers.

“And all of them were beautiful,” says event coordinator Michelle Houston.

With one more daughter and many nieces, nephews and cousins, the Lazzaros know this is not their last cookie table. Far from it.

“We keep saying as a joke that we want to do away with it, because it’s so much work,” says Mrs. Lazzaro. But everyone knows that will never happen.

“It’s a way of connecting with our Italian heritage,” says the bride. “It makes us feel even more Italian when we get together.”


 Amaretti con Pignoli

Amaretti Con Pignoli. Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette

Amaretti is the Italian name for macaroons. The perfect accompaniment for a cup of coffee or espresso, the cookies are crunchy on the outside, and chewy on the inside. This version is rolled in pine nuts.

  • 2 cups almond paste
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 8 tablespoons flour (heaping)
  • 3 egg whites
  • Pine nuts

Cream together almond paste and sugar in food processor. Add 8 tablespoon of flour and 3 egg whites mixed together. Take 1 tablespoon full of dough and roll into ball (if sticky, lightly flour hands). Roll one side of dough in pine nuts. Place on parchment-lined cookie sheet.

Bake at 350 degrees for 10 to 15 minutes on top shelf of oven until golden brown. Cool on parchment paper before removing. The cookies can be stored in a container for up to 1 week.

Makes about 3 dozen cookies.

— Maria Lazzaro, Ross


Hawaiian tarts. Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hawaiian Tarts

For the cookie
  • 1 3/4 cups flour
  • 1/2 cup powdered sugar
  • 2 tablespoons cornstarch
  • 1 cup softened butter
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
For filling
  • 1 cup pineapple preserves, divided
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 1/2 cups coconut
  • Powdered sugar for dusting

Preheat oven 350 degrees.

Make cookie dough: In a large bowl combine flour, powdered sugar and cornstarch; mix well. Add butter and vanilla, and stir until soft dough forms. Shape dough into 1-inch balls. Place balls into 36 miniature muffin cups. Press in bottom and up sides of each cup.

Make filling: Spoon 1 teaspoon pineapple preserves into each dough-lined cup. In a small bowl, combine sugar and egg, and beat with fork until blended. Stir in coconut until coated well with egg. Spoon 1 teaspoon coconut mixture over preserves in each cup.

Bake tarts for 23 to 33 minutes, or until light golden brown. Cool in pans for 20 minutes. Dust with powdered sugar.

Makes 36 tarts.

— Maria Lazzaro, Ross


 

Nut Horns

This makes “a bucket” of cookies, but they freeze well. You also can store them in an airtight container for up to a month in a cool place.

For dough
  • 2 pounds butter (8 sticks), softened
  • 1 pound (2 cups) sour cream
  • 10 egg yolks
  • 3 teaspoons yeast, diluted in 3 to 4 tablespoons of warm water
  • 8 to 9 cups flour
For filling
  • 3 cups walnuts, ground really fine
  • 1/2 cup sugar, plus more for rolling
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • Vanilla

To make dough, place butter, sour cream, egg yolks and dissolved yeast in a large bowl. Mix until creamy. Slowly add flour, mixing as you go, until you get a dough that is soft and elastic. Form dough into balls the size of pingpong balls. Place on cookie sheet, cover and refrigerate overnight.

To make filling, place ground walnuts, sugar and cinnamon in a bowl. Add vanilla, a little at a time, until the ingredients stick together in a paste.

Working with just 5 or 6 chilled dough balls at a time (the butter will cause the dough to soften if it sits too long on the counter), roll dough into small circles. Spread about 1 teaspoon filling in the middle of each circle, then roll up. Roll cookies in sugar, then arrange seam side down onto an ungreased cookie sheet into a horn (half-moon) shape.

Bake at 350 degrees for 15 minutes, or until cookies are golden brown.

Makes 70 to 80 cookies.

— Maria Tolomeo, Shaler

 

 

 

 

Soldier’s Story: A year in Afghanistan changes Lt. Col Chris Cieslak, and her family

This is the last in a series on Lt. Col. Chris Cieslak’s deployment to Afghanistan:

Lt. Col. Chris Cieslak is welcomed home by neighbors. Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette

 

A bunch of red, white and blue balloons danced at the front door when Lt. Col. Chris Cieslak came home earlier this month after a year in Afghanistan. But the rest of her homecoming didn’t exactly go as expected.

The Ben Avon Army reservist ended up returning to the United States the same week her husband, Jeff, had planned a spring break getaway for the kids to a water park in Ohio. So instead of one of those teary reunions at the airport, she was picked up by a friend and dropped off at a house that was as silent as it was empty.

Missing that storybook ending would drive more than a few soldiers crazy. Col. Cieslak isn’t one of them. Chalk it up to an engineer’s way of thinking, but to her, the fact her family waited until the next day to rush home so they could finish their vacation was an example of them continuing to live life to the fullest while she completed her service.

“At first, I was upset they wouldn’t be there to greet me,” she acknowledged earlier this month, just two weeks back into civilian life. “Then I thought, ‘Wait a sec … They didn’t sit on the sidelines when I was in Afghanistan and watch life pass by.’ ”

Col. Cieslak is the first to admit the 43-year-old woman who walked into that empty house on April 4 was not the same suburban mom who had left it a year earlier. That’s because during her deployment with the 412th Theater Engineer Command out of Mississippi, she learned something important: It’s only when you step out of your comfort zone and confront challenges that you can truly grow as a person.

Life lessons

Civilians like to think of military service as the ultimate sacrifice. To be sure, more than 6,000 American soldiers have lost their lives in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003, and many thousands more have been injured, some seriously, according to Defense Department figures. But there’s also a gift that comes back to you by serving, Col. Cieslak points out, often in the most unexpected ways.

When you live with 1,200 people in a space that’s smaller than the footprint of the old Civic Arena, you can’t let bad feelings fester, she said. One of the most valuable life lessons she learned during her yearlong stint in the Afghan capital of Kabul was how to work through conflicts quickly, even with people you don’t like. Her time overseas also revealed, in a very concrete way, how others will support you during tough times if you simply reach out.

It was a challenging year for the Army mother of two, and not just because she lived in a walled-in compound that felt very much like a prison, or that it took a good five months for the civil engineer to find her voice on the job. She also worried whether the engineering consulting firm she’d spent countless hours growing into a successful business with several employees would survive her deployment. Then, in January, her 71-year-old mother, Lois, died from a heart attack while vacationing in Florida. The loss was devastating.

Mom was the one who encouraged her to consider ROTC while attending Penn State and was one of her most ardent supporters when she enlisted in 1991 in the Army Reserve. Had she not been able to lean on her community of fellow soldiers when that bad news made its way 7,000 miles across the globe, the last few months would have been unbearable. From figuring out how to get her on the first flight out of Kabul, to rallying around her when she returned from emergency leave, to recognizing the restorative power of work, they offered a comforting, collective shoulder to cry on.

“We were each other’s families,” she said, “so we tried to reach out to care for and watch over others.”

Value of teamwork

Working as a cog in the wheel of a well-oiled machine provided her with another insight into her own life: how much she missed being part of a high-achieving team. So much so, that by the time she returned to Pittsburgh, she’d decided she no longer wanted to run her own business, and she is in the process of shutting it down. On Tuesday, she’ll take a job as a project director with Oxford Development Co.’s sports and entertainment division, working on projects that include the redevelopment of the Civic Arena site.

“It was still afloat, and my baby, so it was depressing to let it go,” said Col. Cieslak of Chronicle Consulting, whose four employees included her husband, who served as office manager. Yet at the same time, the decision was liberating.

Everything falls on your shoulders when you own a business, and that can make you feel trapped and smothered, she said. So one of her goals while she was in Afghanistan was to look ahead and figure out where she wanted to be in 10 years. The answer was something that would make her feel “alive.”

“Before I left, I’d been in the same job for a very long time, and I think I was stuck in a rut,” she said. The change in attitude didn’t go unnoticed.

As impressed as he was with the way his wife ran her company and projects before being deployed last spring, the “old” Chris doesn’t hold a candle to the “new” Chris.

“She made this quantum leap of fearlessness, where nothing is going to stop her,” Mr. Cieslak said.

The family grew closer during Lt. Col. Chris Cieslak's year-long deployment in Afghanistan. Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette

Her family grew in positive ways, too. Her children, now 9 and 11, appear more self-reliant than they were a year ago, and their relationship is much closer. For her engineer husband, who’s been a stay-home dad since their son, Johnny, was born in 2003, he became even closer to this children. To her surprise, he even took on her job as the family “initiator,” planning several vacations and countless activities with the kids.

“It’s been very gratifying,” she said.

One disappointment over the past year, she said, was that she was exposed to almost no Afghan culture because her duties didn’t require working with locals.

“There was only so much you could step out of your responsibility, and do what you wanted to do,” she said.

It was also hard for her to regain her momentum after returning to Afghanistan after her mother’s funeral. With fewer than two months left, there was barely enough time to train her replacement, let alone finish her projects.

Also weighing heavy on her mind was her job with the 412th. To retire at her current rank of lieutenant colonel, she needs an additional 18 to 24 months in the Reserve. Unless she wants to keep traveling to Mississippi, that means finding a new unit — no easy task in a military that’s drawing down.

Hard to say goodbye

Having been previously deployed in 2003 to Kuwait, Col. Cieslak knew that most of the close friendships she’d form in Afghanistan wouldn’t last: forged in the pressure cooker atmosphere of a war zone, they’re just too intense to continue in the relative calm of civilian life. So as early as last fall, separation anxiety was setting in. She couldn’t help but feel melancholy.

By March, she was so sad at the thought of leaving her surrogate family that it started to overshadow her return to Pittsburgh.

“It’s like postpartum depression,” she said.

Three weeks into civilian life, Col. Cieslak is still adjusting. Facebook has allowed her to stay in touch with a few of her closest military friends, but most of those relationships have already started to fade. Now, the focus is on reconnecting with friends and neighbors and her husband and children.

She thinks it will take about six months to fully readjust — but it’s also kind of exciting.

“You go away, and come back, and it’s like falling in love all over again,” she said.

Many soldiers, herself included, thrive on the excitement of deployment. So the real challenge, she said, will be figuring out how to reap the benefits of military service — the intense relationships, opportunity to lead, the ability to effect change — as a civilian.

PG VIDEO

Old hospital cabinets play integral role in revamped kitchen

Salvaged cabinets once held supplies in a hospital. Rebecca Droke/Post-Gazette

 

 

 

One-of-a-kind homes often have gathering spaces that turn heads. And indeed, until very recently, Kevin and Alana Kulesa did a double take every time they stepped into the kitchen of the house they bought in Ross 10 years ago.

Actually, “winced” might be more like it.

Remodeled on the cheap by a previous owner sometime in the 1980s, the kitchen was ugly and not very functional when the couple came up with a plan to completely reimagine it last year.

“When we cooked, smoke would come down the hall to the bedrooms,” recalls Mr. Kulesa, a graphic designer with Production Masters Inc.

Today, the only thing that’s smokin’ is the kitchen’s red-hot design.

Built — literally — around a baker’s dozen of vintage laboratory cabinets, the project is so visually appealing that it was chosen as the winner of the 2011-12 Renovation Inspiration Contest, small category (less than $50,000).

Now in its sixth year, the competition co-sponsored by the Post-Gazette and Community Design Center of Pittsburgh is judged on a variety of criteria, including appropriateness of construction and materials, functionality and imagination.

That Mr. Kulesa would incorporate repurposed materials into the yearlong project isn’t so unusual; not only was the budget tight (the entire project cost less than $20,000) but also he and his wife were determined to make sure the updates fit the home’s modern personality and style, along with the era it was built in. Builder Don Owens, who studied at Taliesin and was a Frank Lloyd Wright disciple, designed the house with a mock cantilever in 1962.

Rebecca Droke/Post-Gazette

What’s surprising is the amount of work it took to fit the metal cabinets, salvaged from a hospital in Aliquippa, into the new design, which included a pantry and an office area, new floors and a hand-painted backsplash.

The cabinets were cheap enough — none cost more than $75 at Construction Junction — as well as heavy and durable. Yet they also were a bit taller and more shallow than standard kitchen cupboards. “So we had to work everything around them,” says Mr. Kulesa.

And by “everything,” he means … everything.

Rebecca Droke/Post-Gazette

During construction, walls, electrical lines, plumbing and ductwork had to be moved to accommodate the odd-size cabinets; the walls that remained had to be stripped to the studs and resurfaced with thinner materials. The cabinets themselves, blue and battered when he hauled them home from Point Breeze, took nine months to make over into the sleek cream-colored ones that wow visitors today.

Shuffling the heavy steel boxes to and from his friendBeppo’s auto body shop in Bridgeville was the easy part: the men sanded, primed, painted and clear-coated the equivalent of three cars by the time they had finished. “And he never asked for anything in return,” says Mr. Kulesa.

All the hinges and handles also had to be buffed clean, and a few of the cabinets required welding. Two had to be cut to fit the stainless-steel double wall ovens and refrigerator, which they bought at bargain prices at various stages of the project, along with the Bosch stovetop and hood, from various scratch-and-dent stores across the country.

“We knew what we wanted and waited for them to become available,” he says.

One cabinet found its way into a small office area the couple designed off the pantry. Outfitted with new glass doors, it hangs above a desk crafted from a half-inch-thick piece of “floating” tempered glass. A 30-inch piece of stainless-steel magnetic wallboard mounted underneath allows for easy tacking up of important desk items.

The menu board in the Kulesa kitchen. Rebecca Droke/Post-Gazette

Sheets of steel from Frank Custom Stainless in Etna also found their way onto the top and sides of the new center island — chosen because it’s impenetrable to shoes and boots and easy to keep clean — as well as onto the bottom of the cabinets in the form of kick plates. A pair of retro LEM Piston swivel stools, a gift from Mrs. Kulesa’s mother, adjust from bar to counter height with the push of a lever.

pair of retro LEM Piston swivel stools adjust from bar to counter height with the push of a lever. Rebecca Droke/Post-Gazette

Gorgeous as the cabinets were with their new car shine, the kitchen needed a few splashes of color to bring it alive. Hence, the simple but oh-so-beautiful deep-red backsplash over the cooking area.

Colored glass tile is one of the most sought-after looks in today’s kitchens, but it’s also expensive. So Mr. Kulesa took big pieces of glass he got from H.B. Reynolds on Babcock Boulveard in McCandless, hand-painted them on the underside and thin-set them right up against the studs.

“I actually called PPG to ask, ‘What kind of paint sticks to glass?’ ” says Mr. Kulesa. The answer was enamel, and so that’s Rustoleum he rolled on the backs of the tile.

Other design elements that help bring the room to life are Eco by Consentino counter tops, made from recycled glass, under-cabinet LED lighting and 24-inch Yura porcelain floor tiles from Architectural Clay Products on the North Side, which he laid on top of the old asbestos floor so he wouldn’t have the headache of removing it. A domed skylight over the island floods the room with natural light, and there are a half-dozen box lights built into the open rafters.

Mr. Kulesa also is quick to point out the many electric outlets that allow the couple to plug in what and whenever they want: 24 above the counters alone.

“Every time we opened a wall, we added insulation and outlets,” he says.

Most every renovation project goes down to the wire, and this winning entry is no exception: Mr. Kulesa says he literally finished putting on the final touches 15 minutes before the judges showed up at his door last month.

“I’m surprised that no one smelled the paint.”

This is Pittsburgh Food: Wholey’s Fish

Jim Wholey, right, greets a customer at Wholey's in the Strip District. Jim Wholey is one of four brothers who operate the business, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary. Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette

For most Pittsburghers, some things are as sure as the sun rising each morning.

You root for the Steelers.

You don’t, unless you absolutely have to, cross rivers.

And you buy your seafood at Wholey’s in the Strip District.

It’s impossible to think about fish in this city without also thinking about Robert Wholey Co., one of the first retailers to set up shop in this popular shopping district in the late 1950s, and a fixture with its jaunty red-and-white striped awning on Penn Avenue ever since. (It’s pronounced wool-y, not hole-y, in case you forgot.)

To push through the store’s swinging red doors is to encounter so many varieties of fresh seafood that if you surrendered your eyes to your nose, you just might think you’re standing dockside near the ocean instead of inside a century-old warehouse.

The company is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year and plans on thanking customers by handing out free hats, holding raffles and offering retro pricing on certain products. The family also is collecting stories and photos for a “100 years contest” (monthly winners get a $25 gift card) and in August it will begin a 100-day countdown to a giant party that will be thrown sometime in September. Everyone is invited.

A hit with shoppers from the get-go, Wholey’s does fish bigger than anyone else in the city, selling 40,000 pounds of it fresh each week in addition to tons of frozen, canned, smoked and prepared seafood.

It’s especially crazy during the six-week Lenten season, which kicked off yesterday and runs through April 7, when sales typically increase by almost 40 percent, says president Jim Wholey, one of four third-generation brothers now running the business.

Got a hankering for one of the crispy, deep-fried cod sandwiches the store cranks out on meatless Fridays (and every other day of the week, all year long)? You better get there early, because the line starts forming not long after breakfast. Folks line up, too, for with the tuna and other rolls at Andy’s sushi bar inside the front door.

For home cooks, there’s everything from frozen whole octopus and canned scungilli (a large marine snail) to clean-it-yourself bronzini, and wild-caught mussels, oysters and little neck clams to fresh salmon — six varieties on any given day.

Not too shabby for a city that’s landlocked.

“It’s actually worked to our advantage,” says Mr. Wholey, “because it makes us draw from so many ports. The East Coast, Great Lakes, the Atlantic, the Pacific.”

A display of prickly green sea urchins is a great example of the store’s reach: they are flown in live, and still wiggling, from Patagonia.

 

A Saturday morning tradition

Maybe because it grew organically, the store — which in 1976 became a full-service market, with many of its items locally sourced — is like a food-related theme world, a maze that ensures you see a little bit of everything. On Saturdays, the crush of shoppers pushing through the front door often backs up under the awning, and standing in front of the fish counter can be chaotic. Tickets in hand, folks try to edge past each other to get a view of the offerings.

Striped bass at Wholey's in the Strip. Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette

Kids tend to make a beeline to the tall fish tanks at the rear of the store that are teeming with thousands of pounds of live trout, bluegill, largemouth bass and lobster, gill-to-gill against the glass. Drawn by the clink of knives and buzz of an electric scaler, most everyone pauses in front of the fish cutters’ station, where veteran “seafood butcher” Mike Hartman, hired in 1980, and his crew cheerily scale, gut and filet the week’s catch while yakking with customers. On a busy Saturday, they might go through as many as 600 fish; today’s bounty includes a 190-pound swordfish which Mr. Hartman is carving into thick, pink steaks.

You think it’d get old, all that cutting of fish. But where else can you work where every day is a new adventure? he asks. “I’ve probably met 100,000 people since I started here, and the cast of characters is always changing.”

And that’s just the fish room.

Cut left through a narrow passageway, and you’re suddenly in the meat department — beef, pork, sausage, lamb. Everyone is in a rush here, too, Another left, and you’re funneling past a table stacked tall with ice and chicken and into the deli department. Chickens roasting on spits give off a strong aroma and a clerk’s offering a taste of seafood bisque. Next comes cheese and fresh produce and then finally, the registers. Don’t forget to drop some coins into the enormous bronze piggybank at the door before stepping out into the sunshine on Penn Avenue.

 

First things first

Fish hasn’t always been the catch of the day at Wholey’s.

When Robert Leo Wholey traded his horse-drawn peddler’s wagon for a small storefront on Chartiers Avenue in McKees Rocks in 1912, seafood had yet to catch most home cooks’ imaginations. His McKees Rocks Butter and Egg fed a different sensibility, live poultry and dairy products, along with sausages, meat and coffee. Even after his son Robert “Bob” C. Wholey took the reins after his return from World War II, and in 1951 moved the business to a stand inside the former Diamond Market House, Downtown, the focus remained on poultry.

The men of Wholey's: From left, Robert III, Sam, Dan, Matt, Robert Sr. and Jim, circa 1995. Post-Gazette

When the city decided to demolish the market house to make way for the new Market Square, Mr. Wholey braved relocating in the Strip, which in 1959 was a still a sleepy network of wholesalers. Not that he was worried his burgeoning poultry biz might flounder: if anything, moving it to the squat brick building at the corner of 17th Street and Penn Avenue would allow him expand and he did — eight times over the next 50 years.

“He was very, very intuitive about business,” says his wife, Lois, who for many years was in charge of public relations and at a vibrant 88, still writes ditties for the newsletter. Besides, the Strip wasn’t exactly foreign territory. While studying at Duquesne University, her husband made regular 4 a.m. runs there to buy fruits and vegetables for the food stands he ran in Crafton and Brentwood to pay for tuition.

The fish that would turn Wholey’s into a household name starting arriving around 1960, almost on a lark. Mrs. Wholey remembers her husband telling a man who traveled often to Baltimore for bushels of blue crabs, “Buy some for me and I’ll put them in the store.”

He did, the crustaceans ended up selling like hot cakes, and “then of course people realized fish was healthy and easy to cook as well as delicious.” Soon the bespectacled Mr. Wholey was importing a variety of fresh and frozen seafood. And the rest, as they say, is Pittsburgh history.

His family grew along with his business, eventually welcoming nine children, all of whom who worked in the store while they were growing up. Four of his five sons were hooked for life, following their dad — who always made it home for dinner, no matter how busy — into the family business. A fourth generation, which includes 27 grandchildren, waits in the wings.

“When I was in college, I thought, ‘No way,'” says Jim Wholey, who started working there full-time in 1975, after a short stint as a concert promoter. “But then I put one foot in front of the other and surrendered.” Now, he can’t imagine doing anything else, and most days he’s on the floor for at least part of the day, talking with customers, joking with the staff, sometimes handing out samples.

Like the city he calls home, Wholey’s is “all about family and relationships,” he says.

Agrees Bob III’s daughter Bella Wholey, “Grandpa was all about the people. He saw Wholey’s as much more than revenue. It was a place where anyone could feel at home because of the authentic family values the market was built around.”

Until the late 1950s, Wholey's was located in the Diamond Market in what is now Market Square.

 

Larger than life

You don’t build Pittsburgh’s largest fish market without a great deal of entrepreneurial skill, long hours and dedication to customer service. But Robert C. also was the ultimate showman, a people person who understood that it wasn’t enough to simply get shoppers in the door, you also had to maximize the experience with lots of activity.

One way he set the pace for fun was with a steady stream of promotions. One of the most famous capitalized on the shark mania following the 1975 movie “Jaws.” Figuring landlubbing Pittsburgh would be thrilled to come face-to-face with one of those killers, he put out a call for the world’s largest shark. A fisherman in South Africa took the bait, and in 1977 a 2,400-pound Great White (dead, and packed on ice) was on its way to the Strip. The only problem was, the longshoremen who unloaded the giant fish off the boat in New York couldn’t resist helping themselves to souvenirs. So when it arrived in Pittsburgh, it was absent its teeth.

Needless to say, a gummy shark ain’t scary. “So Dad hired a team of dentists to make an exact replica of the teeth,” with insurance footing the $10,000 bill, says Jim Wholey. An immediate crowd pleaser, the shark stayed on display in a glass-front trailer for years, with the $1 each person paid to see it going to charity.

Over the years, shoppers also have oohed and aahed over Andy the World’s Largest Pig and Bubba the 100-year-old lobster, traipsed through a petting zoo in the parking lot, been serenaded with accordions, charmed by animated cows and penguins and plied with endless free samples, says Lois Wholey.

And don’t forget about the 28-foot-long Fishmobile that made its debut in 1995, or the O-gauge train that circles the fish room above customers’ heads. It runs 12 hours a day, seven days a week, to the delight of children and grown-ups alike.

“I remember asking Dad, ‘What’s that got to do with fish?’ ” recalls Jim Wholey. “He just laughed. ‘Don’t worry about it,’ he said. ‘It’ll be a hit.’ ”

He was right, and today the miniature locomotive is so popular that the store has to keep four spare engines.

Many of the “surprises in every aisle” sprang from trips to Stew Leonard’s chain of Connecticut grocery stores, or the family’s travels. But not all. Bill, the white-coated black bear that greets shoppers at the front door, was oldest son Bob III’s idea. So was Rachel, the giant solid bronze pig by the exit that’s a clone of the porker at the opening of the famed Pike Place Market in Seattle. Coins slipped between her shoulder blades have raised thousands for The Children’s Institute in Squirrel Hill since 1994.

“They’re such a destination for the Strip and Pittsburgh,” says Becky Rodgers, executive director of Neighbors in the Strip. “You go in there, and it’s an experience, an adventure in shopping.”

 

Customers come first

Stunts aside, the main focus throughout the years has always been making shoppers happy. People gravitate to someone they trust, Lois Wholey says, and so each generation has worked to embody the motto carved in stone outside the front door: Rule No. 1. The customer is always right. Rule No. 2. If the customer is ever wrong, re-read Rule No. 1.

Maybe that’s why there is no typical Wholey’s shopper, but instead a clientele that includes all ages, colors, races and backgrounds — from hipsters with lip piercings and grandmas in sensible shoes to dads with young sons and regular customers who shopped there as children with their parents, such as Ed Lancia of Beechview, who on a recent Tuesday was in search of lobster tail, shrimp and fresh flounder.

“My mom and dad used to drag me along,” he says with a smile, “And now I come at least once a month,” usually with his wife, Andrea.

No one’s sure which of Robert Wholey’s grandkids, nine of whom are in college, will step in to guide the store into the next century. But already, the brothers are working with the University of Pittsburgh’s Katz Graduate School of Business to develop a plan. Which is a good thing not just for Saturday destination shoppers but also city residents who shop there every day.

“People don’t realize they service a lot of Downtown neighbors, from the Hill to Lawrenceville to Oakland,” notes Ms. Rodgers.

“It’s a neighborhood staple.”


 

Tasty Fish Rolls

“With fish,” says Lois Wholey, “the simpler the recipe, the better.” And if you can work in a few veggies, all the better.

  • Vegetable spray
  • 1 cup Pepperidge Farm seasoned bread crumbs
  • 1/2 cup cooked spinach
  • 1/2 cup cubed fresh tomatoes
  • 1 tablespoon chopped dried tomatoes
  • 1 tablespoon chopped shallots
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons melted butter, divided
  • 8 flounder fillets, skinless and boneless
  • Lemon slices for garnish

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Spray a baking dish with vegetable oil spray. Combine all ingredients except fillets in a bowl, reserving some of the melted butter. Lay fillets in baking dish and divide stuffing on top. Roll fillets up and arrange seam-side down in pan. Drizzle with remaining butter.

Bake 12 to 15 minutes or until fish can be flaked with a fork. Garnish with lemon slices.

Serves 4 to 6.

— Lois Wholey


 

Baked Nutty Fish

PG tested

  • 8 boneless, skinless fish
  • fillets (flounder, whiting or sole)
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 beaten egg white
  • 1/2 cup slivered almonds, toasted
  • Vegetable oil spray
  • 4 tablespoons melted butter
  • Cubed avocado and lemon slices for garnish

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Sprinkle fish lightly with salt and pepper. Dip fillets in beaten egg white, then pat both sides in almonds. Lay fillets in a pan or cookie sheet sprayed with vegetable oil. Drizzle with melted butter.

Bake 12 to 15 minutes or until fish can be flaked with a fork. Garnish with avocado cubes and lemon slices.

Serves 4 to 6.

— Lois Wholey

 

10 years of TLC bring condemned Manchester beauty back to life

David McAnallen and Eddie Pinto/Bill Wade

Abandoned, boarded up and stripped clean of its original architectural details, the 150-year-old townhouse in Manchester wasn’t long for this Earth when David McAnallen decided to rescue it from the wrecking ball.

The city had already condemned the once-gracious Second Empire property on Sheffield Street, built sometime in the 1860s, when the city of Allegheny on the bank of the Ohio River vied with the South Side as an industrial center specializing in ships and locomotives. Yet plenty of other homes in similarly bad straits had successfully been renovated, and so Mr. McAnallen, who at the time was living nearby, was pretty sure this sad old lady could be coaxed back to life, too.

Good call.

Ten years in the making, Mr. McAnallen’s home renovation project is arguably among the North Side neighborhood’s finest, from the meticulously restored cornice brackets and window surrounds brightening the red brick exterior, to the exquisite caramel-colored heart pine floors that greet you at the top of the stairs, to the second-floor deck that’s decked out with a gas brick fireplace and provides a bird’s-eye view of the courtyard.

The home is so welcoming and lovely to look at that it narrowly missed winning the 2010-11 Renovation Inspiration Contest sponsored by the Post-Gazette and Community Design Center of Pittsburgh. (It was a runner-up.)

Now in its sixth year, the contest judges home renovation projects on a variety of criteria, including functionality and appropriateness of construction and materials. It’s also a nod to homeowners’/designers’ creativity, which with each successive year of the competition has only gotten better. The top dogs in last year’s large category, for example, turned a dilapidated commercial building in Garfield into a envelope-pushing, contemporary “green” home.

The deadline for entries in this year’s contest is Tuesday, which means you still have the weekend to pull your entry together in one of two categories: small (projects costing $50,000 or less) or large (more than $50,000). It’s open to both homeowners and home professionals; for details, go to www.post-gazette.com/homes.

Mr. McAnallen’s house is too big to be considered an actual diamond in the rough, but even boarded up, there was no mistaking its potential. Blessed with beautiful arching windows, high ceilings and elaborate moldings and brackets, the three-story house reflected Manchester’s wave of prosperity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Still, it took some cajoling from his good friend Jim Spiegel, a real estate broker and developer in Erie, for the psychologist to make that leap of faith.

“He was always pestering me, asking, ‘Did you buy it yet? Did you buy it?’ ”

The red tape hassles that come with buying a condemned property were just the first of many headaches. Given the size and scope of the project, Mr. McAnallen would also need to find a capable, not to mention versatile and collaborative, general contractor who would turn his vision into something concrete.

He found all that, and then some, in Eddie Pinto of Bellevue.

With the hint of a smile, Mr. McAnallen recalls being told he was “nuts” when he offered Mr. Pinto the job. But three weeks later the contractor was at his door, negotiating his fee.

Kudos also go to plasterer Roger Eades, heating guy Randy Kaczor of New Kensington and Mount Washington electrician Ron “Sparky” Matthews, who didn’t flinch when an appeal for blueprints elicited the response, “They’re in your head.”

Bill Wade/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The bulk of the work, which included turning the first floor into an apartment for rent, took the better part of two years. Floors had to be sanded and varnished; walls required patching and painting; new windows had to be installed; and, of course, the house needed all new plumbing, heating and electric. There also was the matter of a leaking roof, and the (very) slow process of acquiring the eight lots next door from the city so he could create a side courtyard.

Mr. McAnallen admits that during those first intense months, there were moments of “sheer panic” when he was sure he’d taken on more than he could handle.

“It was mammoth,” he said, “and I didn’t always have a sense of what was involved.”

Somehow, though, he never lost hope.

“I could always see the end result.”

Many of the home’s “new” 19th-century architectural details came from antique shops and salvage yards. He found one of a pair of slate mantels for the living room in a Verona basement and its sister on the back of a truck outside Construction Junction. The staircase to the second floor came from an antique shop in New Castle.

Other design elements only look old but are actually brand-spanking new. Stephen Schuler of Emerald Glass in Washington, Pa., did all of the colorful custom stained glass and also created the etched glass in the double entry.

Bill Wade/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The classic mural in the vaulted kitchen, inspired by a Gustav Dore engraving, is the work of Fombell-native-turned Hollywood photographer Ken Heusey. He’d just finished painting a mural decorating a terrace overlooking the beer garden at Hofbrauhaus Pittsburgh on the South Side when Mr. McAnallen met him, rather serendipitously, at the North Side YMCA.

Then there’s Mr. Pinto, whose capable hands free-formed the high-relief plaster trim seen throughout much of the house. He also crafted the focal point in the main living space, a curvy walnut electronics cabinet that sits between the living and dining room mantels.

 

The elegant oxbow is a recurring shape inside and outside the house, turning up in the kitchen breakfast nook and window sills, under the stained-glass window in the living room, and the pass-through to the kitchen. It’s also in the courtyard in the form of a gently meandering brick patio.

Equal parts taskmaster and perfectionist, Mr. Pinto was adamant things be done to his standards. Mr. McAnallen was given one week to sand and patch the windows in the living room. No more, no less.

A much longer project was a rear addition that removed a slanted roof that rendered much of the space on the third floor unusable. Graced with three sun-welcoming dormers, it’s now a spacious TV room that opens through glass French doors onto an open-air deck.

Mr. McAnallen is still working on a second-floor guest room and the spiral staircase off its small covered porch that takes visitors down into the backyard (he found it on Craigslist). But the master bedroom is a finished gem with its matching window seats, skylights, built-in dressers and rustic exposed-brick walls.

Bill Wade/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The courtyard, anchored by a large oval koi pond with an “eclipse” of bright-white rock, also is very much a work in progress. Yet even in these early stages, you can tell it’s going to be nothing short of an urban oasis, and not just because it measures a whopping third of an acre.

Landscaped with honey locust, Japanese maple and climbing and regular hydrangeas, it’s a tranquil and unexpected slice of green amid a sea of brick and asphalt. Eventually, Mr. McAnallen said, the space will include a pergola, and the arborvitae and holly bushes running along the sidewalk will grow tall enough to completely contain it.

 

Until then, there’s always the view from the roof.

“I love it from here,” he said.

A cut below: In the basement of Downtown’s Koppers Building, a convivial barber keeps customers coming back

Ron DeMutis cuts hair in the basement of the Koppers Building, Downtown Pittsburgh/Post-Gazette

Retired public relations executive Larry Werner has been sporting the same no-nonsense businessman’s haircut since at least the Kennedy administration, if not longer: short around the sides and neck, smoothly tapered on top.

It’s so basic a cut that even a beginning cosmetology student could do it. But Mr. Werner trusts the 20-minute job to only one person.

Since the mid-1980s — it’s been so long now, he can’t remember the exact year — Ron DeMutis has cut his hair in the small barbershop tucked in the basement of the Downtown Koppers Building. The experience is such a habit that he doesn’t just make the long drive from Franklin Park to town every two weeks; he also schedules trips to Florida around his long-standing appointment.

OK, so maybe he’s had his hair cut once or twice by one of the shop’s two other barbers when Mr. DeMutis has the nerve to go on vacation. (Barbers need a break, too.) But quite reluctantly.

“Guys are funny,” says Mr. Werner, 77, with a chuckle. “I don’t like anyone else cutting my hair.”

The $15 price ($20 if you want to splurge on a wash and cut) might seem an obvious draw, but for Mr. Werner and many of the shop’s other regular customers, it’s really more about the man holding the scissors, and the old-school, men-can-be-men atmosphere the shop exudes.

Mr. Werner grew up going to small barbershops like this — convivial, no-frill places where guys congregated to shoot the breeze while they got a cut and shave. So when Jerry Voros, who hired him in 1984 to run the PR department at Ketchum, told him about the subterranean shop on Seventh Avenue, he made an appointment. He’s never looked back

“Ron’s just such a great conversationalist, with a great sense of humor,” says Mr. Werner. “I always hope someone is in the chair when I get there, so I can sit and listen to the conversations going on.”

“He keeps you interested,” agrees Mr. Voros, who at age 80 and 20 years into retirement still gets his hair cut there once a month. Just as endearing, says the Pittsburgh resident, is how he talks to every customer on the same level, be he a wealthy CEO or young college grad barely scratching out a living. Sit in his chair and you’ll get updated on his daughter in Florida or what his three granddaughters are up to. But he’ll also want to hear (and will remember) what’s new in your life, too.

Mr. DeMutis’ business card advertises the shop as a “hair styling center.” But it’s not a place where men get styled so much as neatened up. There’s no hairstyle books to thumb through while you wait for one of the shop’s five black styling chairs to free up –the counter holds copies of Maxim and Playboy — or flat-screen TVs to watch the game. Clipped hair is sucked from customers’ collars with an old-fashioned hair vacuum. For those who need supplies afterward, glass cabinets display no-fuss products from Rofflers.

Every once in a while a customer will ask for a modern do. Just the other day Judy Warchol, a certified cosmetologist who has worked with Mr. DeMutis for 26 years, did a Justin Bieber haircut for the little son of a regular customer.

But generally, it’s a constant stream of buzz cuts, flat tops and business cuts. Mr. DeMutis and his staff, which also includes Richard Dowdle, give straight-edge shaves and trim goatees, mustaches and beards as well.

A change in hairstyles has led many old-fashioned barbershops to go the way of the vinyl record.

“We’re literally a dying breed,” admits Mr. DeMutis, 64, who on a busy day can trim upward of 15 heads with the “clipper and comb technique.” A cut takes about 20 minutes. “Guys are passing on, and new ones aren’t going into the barber business.”

Mr. DeMutis, a Carrick High School grad, didn’t grow up wanting to cut hair. It just so happened that the South Side building where he took accordion lessons was a block away from the now-defunct Steel City Barber Academy, and the owner of the school went to high school with his father.

“So he talked my dad into it,” he says,

His first job after graduating was at a shop in Castle Shannon; by 1970, he was working in a shop in the Triangle Building on Smithfield Street, Downtown. He moved to the Koppers Building in 1972 to work for barber Carmen Rizzuto. The shop opened in 1929, the same year as the green-roofed skyscraper that rises 475 feet above Seventh Avenue. And like the building’s limestone exterior and urbane lobby — designed by Chicago architects Graham, Anderson, Probst & White — it reflects the sleek Art Deco style.

It hasn’t always been so: shortly after Mr. DeMutis started working for Mr. Rizzuto, the original marble walls and elaborate woodwork came down and dropped ceilings bearing fluorescent lights went up. That 1970s look lasted until Beazer Co. took over the building in 1988, and in the process of abating asbestos decided to make over the shop to its original Art Deco style.

Mr. DeMutis, who purchased the barbershop from Mr. Rizzuto in 1993, doesn’t advertise, so new customers typically arrive in one of three ways — word of mouth, a Google search for “traditional barber” or on the heels of their bosses, friends or fathers.

“A lot of guys don’t like going to chains (salons),” he says.

Paul Horan, 43, of Pine, a founding principal of NAI Pittsburgh Commercial real estate company, is typical. His father, Justin, who headed the Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce from 1975 to 1994, was a DeMutis regular. When his son got out of school and started working Downtown, he became one, too.

What Mr. Horan appreciates most is Mr. DeMutis’ personality and the easy relationship he enjoys with his customers.

Five Diamond chef, Dave Racicot, confident he’ll sparkle in new setting

First in an occasional series on the birth of Notion

It’s tough to pigeon-hole Dave Racicot, the self-taught chef who earned Nemacolin Woodlands Resort’s Lautrec restaurant its coveted AAA Five Diamond rating in 2007, when he was but 29 years old.

Chef Dave Racicot - Larry Roberts/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

He’s extremely talented, of course. But also cocky. Outspoken. Kind of pig-headed. Almost too self-confident.

Oh, and sexy, too, what with that scruffy beard and network of tatts running up one arm and down the other.

Mostly, he’s determined.

On Dec. 31, if everything stays on schedule, the doors will swing open at Notion, his new restaurant in what used to be Boulevard Bistro in Oakmont. It’s the end result of a year-long journey fraught with angst, rejection, frustration and — after he finally signed the papers on the Allegheny River Boulevard building two months ago — buckets of sweat and elbow grease.

This past January, Mr. Racicot was let go from his job as Lautrec’s chef du cuisine for what he calls, in a voice tinged with irritation, “creative differences.” He tried hard to land another job that would keep his young family in the area, and to woo dollars, with business consultant Tom Dickson’s help, out of would-be restaurateurs’ pockets with fancy investor dinners. But nothing panned out.

He was baffled and humbled.

“My credentials are great, especially in this area, where there’s a lot of people who understand good restaurants,” Mr. Racicot said back in June over coffee at Bruegger’s in Market Square. Then the idea for Notion was exactly that: a notion of what could be if he could just get his hands on some dough. He laughed. “But restaurants are a popularity contest, where some chefs can’t cook. It’s more about being well known.”

Resigned to starting over somewhere else, the Indiana, Pa., native was seriously considering a job at Woodlands Inn in Charleston, S.C., when his cell phone rang in late September. It was his brother, Ryan, also a chef, telling him to check out an ad on craigslist:

Are you an executive chef ready to own your own business?

“Probably a bunch of BS,” Mr. Racicot remembers thinking as he shot off an e-mail. Or not. The very next day he was face-to-face with seller Meg Burkardt, an attorney who’s part-owner of the Oaks Theater next door to the restaurant space. And flash, boom, bam. The indecision and frustration marking the past eight months of his life was history.

When Ms. Burkardt opened Boulevard Bistro five years ago to give moviegoers a place to eat pre- or post-show, she never dreamed she’d be running it herself, and for so long; the plan always was to “pass it off.”

When her son, the bistro’s sous chef, took a job in Los Angeles, it prompted her finally to do just that, and within two days after posting on craigslist she received nearly 30 responses. What narrowed the field to Mr. Racicot was his passion and work ethic.

“I liked his dedication and sincerity,” she said. “He’s just so committed to the idea.”

He also has the goods: In addition to steering Lautrec to its five-star status, Mr. Racicot in 2009 was named a semi-finalist in the “Rising Star Chef of the Year Category” by the James Beard Foundation. The nomination earned him a chance to prepare a seven-course meal at the famed James Beard House in New York’s historic Greenwich Village.

“He’s competent, and has an ongoing interest in it staying successful,” Ms. Burkardt said.

For Mr. Racicot, the situation was a dream come true. Not only was it a nice space in a great neighborhood that needed little renovation, but Ms. Burkardt’s sweetheart turnkey deal included financing, eliminating the need for pesky investors or huge loans. Sweeter still: the first payment would be deferred for six months to allow cash flow while Notion got up and running. And a liquor license was included. He’d be crazy not to jump at the chance, even though to do it, he’d have to cash in every dime of his 401K savings.

Twelve hours after Boulevard Bistro closed on Oct. 9, its windows facing Allegheny River Boulevard were covered in brown paper and Chef Racicot was inside cleaning, a signed “gentlemen’s agreement” under his baseball cap.

“Looks like I will officially own my own restaurant later this week,” he crowed in an e-mail on Oct. 12.

Then, the real work began.

A leap of faith

All new restaurants require a leap of faith, with about 60 percent closing or changing hands within three years of opening, according to a recent study by Ohio State University. Chef Racicot’s odds of success are arguably more tenuous, in that Notion won’t be a neighborhood joint like its predecessor but a high-end “destination” restaurant, pairing fine food with fine wine.

Pittsburgh’s dining scene has never been hotter, with more than two dozen food establishments opening in the past two years. But upscale restaurants such as Elements Contemporary Cuisine in Gateway Center and Habitat in the Fairmont Pittsburgh are the exception rather than the rule.

“High-end has seen its time of day in the Pittsburgh scene,” said Terri Sokoloff, president of Specialty Bar & Restaurant Brokers, which helps to arrange the sale of existing restaurant space and the transfer of liquor licenses. “People want a good meal, but they also want value.”

Also worrisome is that Notion is small, seating just 38. Ten years ago, chef-driven boutique restaurants were rare enough to be sought out; Pittsburgh’s food scene has progressed to where today, there’s “tons” of great little finds, says Ms. Sokoloff. Chef Racicot’s success, then, will require a dedicated following.

As she puts it, “You’re only as good as your last meal.”

On that end, Chef Racicot isn’t worried. Even though Notion’s menu still hasn’t been committed to paper — as of Monday, he’d only written 10 or so things down — he knows it will feature the same modern, high-quality food that earned him the James Beard nod, both a la carte and as a tasting dinner. Diners also will enjoy exquisite presentation and the “best service of any restaurant in the city.

“My expectation is that everything will be perfect, every single time,” he said. “No restaurant in Pittsburgh will do what we do.”

Translation: If you’re the type of diner who’s looking for a quick four courses for $18 before a show, or think dinner has to involve a T-bone, it’s probably not for you.

What does give the 32-year-old chef pause is that he’s starting in an existing restaurant. Nine months ago when he was first wooing investors (early contenders included Kevin McClatchy), the goal was to build his culinary mecca from scratch to avoid fighting diners’ memories.

Or as he put it on Nov. 4, in the midst of one of his marathon cleaning sessions with manager Jennifer Jin, “You don’t want somebody driving by in five years and saying, ‘Remember Boulevard Bistro?’ ”

One early possibility involved renovating Bondstreet Shoes on Ellsworth Avenue in Shadyside. When that proved too expensive, he turned his sights down the street to Enrico’s Ristorante.

“Well, that didn’t go as planned, which is a kick to the stomach,” he complained in an email on June 22, when Enrico’s building owner took an offer from another buyer. “But I’m going to stay positive and think that it didn’t happen for a good reason. . . . Right now I feel like I’m starting over.”

A few days later, he was working on yet another deal, Mark’s Grille on Penn Avenue in the Cultural District, buoyed by the possibility of a group of investors with “more money than Joe Hardy.” But that, too, eventually would go bust.

“Talking to a few other chefs, and this is about how long it took them to get things going,” he wrote on June 28, his frustration mounting. “So I don’t feel like I’m not accomplishing anything anymore. It’s just taking longer than expected.”

This fall, just as he was sure his dreams would have to come to an end, he stumbled upon The Deal.

“It all sounds way too good to be true, but I’m close to signing a deal,” he wrote on Sept. 27. Praise the Lord and pass the coffee.

Whipping up the buzz

Even before the loan documents were signed on Nov. 1, Chef Racicot was busy making lists. At the top was developing a budget, opening a checking account and applying for credit from vendors; he also had to design logos, set up a website, www.notionrestaurant.com, and start blogging and tweeting to get a buzz going.

Also looming were countless decisions on how to configure and decorate the space. Banquettes or chairs? Carpeting or hardwood? Eight-ounce cocktail glasses or 10? What to do with that huge pizza oven? That problem was solved just this week: Through Green Apple Network, he was able to barter it for a concrete countertop from Stone Passion Northeast in Harrison City.

Architect Jen Bee of Jen Bee Design in Allison Park has been helping design a floor plan and suggesting vendors and products. But Mr. Racicot, who’s commuting daily from Uniontown, admitted he’s not the best listener.

“I’m a little OCD and ADD,” he said.

While shopping with Ms. Bee on Nov. 13 at IKEA for furniture and wall garnishes, for instance, he didn’t want to hear pedestal tables will work best. He’d already settled on the BJURSTA dining table, which has four legs. Until he decided, a week later, that what he really wanted was to put custom maple tabletops on top of the existing pedestals.

What they did agree on is that the colors and design should be as minimalist as possible so the food and presentation shine.

At least he has his core team in place, all former co-workers at Lautrec. That includes Ms. Jin, 30, who was dining room manager during his tenure, and ran the Pittsburgh Marathon with him this past May; sous chef Andrew Stump; and pastry chef Joshua Lind, a fresh off a tour of duty with the Army National Guard in Afghanistan.

“Now I’m doing it for me and the people who worked hard for me and have been loyal friends,” he said.

On Monday, Chef Racicot was headed back to IKEA to buy several storage pieces for the dining room. He also was sketching out the wall art — he is going to paint the canvases in shades of red and gray and hang them on 79-inch curtain rods himself — and deciding on fabric for the banquettes.

With just three weeks to blast off, you’d think he’d be sweating bullets. But no, his only real concern is getting a fridge in the small storage room repaired.

“Nervous? I have no reason to be,” he said. “I’m organized and feel focused and in control of the situation.”

The restaurant biz is a tenuous one, but Ms. Burkardt, who enjoyed five successful years with Boulevard Bistro, is fairly confident this one will fly. Yet she wonders if both sides might have to “stretch” their expectations to reach a happy medium: diners up and the chef down.

“When you’re young, you feel you have to take a tougher line and do exactly what you want to do,” she said. It’s not until you go into business for yourself for the first time that you “learn the lessons you need to learn.”

Chef Racicot insists he’s going into the venture with his eyes wide open. Even though he’ll face 100-hour work weeks, he knows he won’t get rich; after covering payroll, buying food, paper supplies, flowers and uniforms and paying rent and credit-card fees — the list goes on and on– he’ll be lucky if he grosses 8 cents on the dollar.

But it’s really not about the money, he says.

“When people walk in the door, I want them to feel the energy and passion and love I put into every single dish.”

White Bean Puree

PG tested

When Dave Racicot made this tasty appetizer for his Beard House dinner in August 2009, he gave it the five-star treatment with molasses and bay leaf gelees, roasted garlic, raw apple jam, chorizo chips and maple cream. For your holiday party, it’ll be just as delicious served with crusty bread, crackers or roasted vegetables.

Tip: To keep the veggies separate from the beans, you might want to wrap them in a piece of cheesecloth before cooking.

  • 2 cups dried navy beans, soaked overnight
  • 2 carrots, peeled and chopped
  • 3 celery ribs, chopped
  • 2 onions, chopped
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 1/3 cups heavy cream, warmed
  • 1 stick unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch cubes
  • Salt and white pepper, to taste

Drain the beans and rinse well. Pick through the beans for any debris. Place the beans, carrots, celery, onion, baking soda and bay leaf in a large pot. Cover with water and bring to a boil. Skim away any impurities that come to the surface. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook until the beans are tender, about 1 hour. Drain and remove the vegetables and bay leaf.

In small batches, place the beans in a food processor and process at a low speed, slowly adding the cream (only add enough cream to make a smooth puree). Add the butter a little at a time until incorporated. Season with salt and white pepper. Press the puree through a sieve before serving.

Makes 6 servings.

– Chef Dave Racicot

The Net Result: Energy saving design cuts Pine home’s utility costs to zero

kurt weber/post-gazette

Shawna and Sherwood Johnson’s custom home on Lake MacLeod in Pine takes your breath away, and not just because of its million-dollar-plus price tag.

Nestled on a 1-acre lot with a view across the water of the Mission-style boathouse, the five-bedroom contemporary designed by FortyEighty Architecture boasts a two-story great room with a millstone fireplace, a gourmet kitchen with granite countertops and — count ’em — two climbing walls for their two young children. The couple, both veterinarians, even have a separate wash room for their mixed-breed dogs, with doors that open onto a pet relief/play area carpeted in artificial K9Grass for easy cleanup.

Talk about living the dream.

What the Johnsons hope visitors will carry away from a free open house (549 MacLeod Drive, 15044) from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. today and Sunday, however, isn’t envy. It’s a better understanding of the benefits of “green” construction.

A candidate for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification, the two-story residence is a showcase for sustainable building practices and products, from the locally sourced ash front door (the work of the late John Metzler of Pittsburgh’s Urban Tree Forge), to the automated clerestory windows that admit natural light without heating up the rooms, to the state-of-the-art geothermal heat pump that uses 50 percent less energy than a conventional heating/cooling system.

To install it, seven wells were drilled 150 feet into the ground. In cold weather, a coagulated refrigerant circulating in the pipes absorbs heat from the earth (usually about 54 degrees) and carries it to the heat pump; when it’s warm, the pump absorbs heat from the air and transfers it to the pipes, where it’s absorbed by the earth.

Constructed by Wexford builder SureGreen with an insulated concrete form foundation, the house also features structural insulated panels under the recycled standing-seam metal roof. In the next week or so, Vox Energy Systems will install 34 3-by-5 foot solar panels that will produce up to 8,400 kilowatt hours of energy a year.

Adding to the home’s energy efficiency is radiant heating under the concrete floors and slatted wood overhangs designed to block the sun in the summer and harness it in the winter.

The end result of all that technology, says builder Tim Shipley, is a net-zero house that creates as much energy as it uses. In fact, the Johnsons might eventually make money selling excess electricity back to the utility company.

With more than 4,300 square feet of living space, calling the house “green” might seem a stretch. Not to Mr. Shipley.

“It’s really the impact on the environment when you’re building and operating it,” he explains. “This house isn’t wasting any energy.”

SureGreen is no stranger to sustainable building, having constructed the WPXI Concept Home at Lake MacLeod in 2006. But this is the first in which the homeowners were leading the way. The Johnsons and their builder focused not just on the mechanics and building materials (all the wood is FSC certified, the paint low- or no-VOC), but also on the site and interior layout. To take full advantage of the sun’s exposure, the house is oriented to east-west with south-facing windows on the main living spaces. They also kept the bedrooms and bathrooms small in exchange for a larger living great room/kitchen area, and placed utility areas on the back of the house.

Not that they sacrificed aesthetics or comfort; Lori Smith of Distinctive Dwellings’ interior design married sleek, straight lines with warm colors from PPG Pittsburgh Paints’ Fallingwater palette and interesting textures. One wall in the master bedroom, for example, is covered in wara juraku, a Japanese textured wall finish of straw, clay, sand and other aggregates. (Though it’s no longer available in the U.S., Artemis Environmental offers an alternative from American Clay Earth Plaster.) In the master bath, Iron Eden of Bloomfield crafted mirror frames and towel racks that look like tree branches.

The eye is similarly delighted in the loft, where two kinds of cork color the floor: tiger on the edges, and black everywhere else. Still to come are resin panels with stranded bamboo inside that will be visible from the second-floor hall. Adding to the light and airy feel (there’s 108 windows in all) is an open, elevated walkway that grants a view of a waterfall on one side and the great room on the other. A three-season room off the den, with custom bookcases and a bar area, opens onto a stone patio with a reflecting pond and waterfall.

“They wanted it very clean and square,” says Ms. Smith. “The only thing round in the house is the balusters.”

That said, they didn’t skimp on whimsy. Cut into the master bedroom wall is a small hole that opens onto a catwalk beneath the windows.

Other details embrace modern technology. Each of the six cubbies in the tiled mudroom has a power outlet for recharging cell phones and laptops, and the garage is wired for a pair of Smart Cars.

Wondering how much air conditioning they’re using, or whether the home security system has been armed? ELAN’s HomeLogic home automation system, installed by MGM Automation, keeps a running count. Accessible from anywhere from any computer, iPhone or smart phone, it opens and closes the windows based on temperature, controls lighting and thermostats, and also manages digital music and Internet streams.

Living in such a super-insulated envelope isn’t without its health risks. So the home also includes a heat recovery ventilator that removes excessive moisture, biological contaminants and other pollutants from the air.